Three-hour tarmac rule makes more delays

A Southwest airplane taxies at Los Angeles International Airport.


Kai Ryssdal: Next time you find yourself stuck in an airplane out on the tarmac for hours at a time, go ahead and count your blessings. Seriously, I mean that. Turns out penalties meant to help travelers may actually be hurting them.

Marketplace's Jeff Tyler has more.

Jeff Tyler: Passengers aren't being stranded inside idle airplanes as often. That's because the government started penalizing airlines when a plane stays on the tarmac for more than three hours. Fines run $27,000 per passenger.

Joshua Marks: Because there are punitive fines at hundreds of times the amount of revenue that's on-board the airplane, what we're seeing is that airlines are very risk averse. They're bringing those flights back to the gate long before three hours.

That's Joshua Marks of Marks Aviation and one of the authors of a new study.

Marks: What we've seen is that, for every flight where you save a tarmac delay, four flights are getting cancelled.

Marks estimates that around 200,000 passengers will have flights canceled in the next year. And those passengers will wind-up being delayed for an average of 17 hours.

But some say these estimates are premature. Henry Harteveldt is an airline analyst with Forrester Research.

Henry Harteveldt: What I'm concerned about is, the study's trying to write the end of the show when the first act isn't even finished yet.

With only one month's worth of data, he says the study may over-estimate the problem. But if high cancellations persist after six months, Harteveldt thinks the three-hour tarmac rule should be reconsidered.

Harteveldt: This was done to protect the traveler. But if it ends up penalizing travelers and inconveniencing people, than this three-hour limit ends up being the wrong kind of rule to have.

Harteveldt says the airlines, the FAA and airport executives should sit down in a few months to iron-out the kinks. Otherwise, the consumer protections meant to streamline the process may continue to cause delays.

I'm Jeff Tyler for Marketplace.

About the author

Jeff Tyler is a reporter for Marketplace’s Los Angeles bureau, where he reports on issues related to immigration and Latin America.
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In the future, please ask these analysts who are the parties that funded their research. If this report was funded by the airline industry, as I suspect, its interpretation of the unintended consequences would be put in a dramatically different light. Your listeners deserve that information.

"...the consumer protections meant to streamline the process may continue to cause delays."
What are the odds that a government regulation could have unintended consequences?

Canceled flights are an easily tracked and oft cited metric of airline performance. Long term, airlines have a strong economic incentive not to cancel too many flights. Long waits, on the other hand, are much more ephemeral. Canceled flights also give passengers the option of finding alternative carriers of even renting a car in some cases; things that cannot be done locked in an airliner.

I think this Marketplace report suffers from either poor research or bad editing--it makes both positions seem not well thought-out. While I looked for the Marks Aviation report, I wasn't able to find it. I did, however, find a number of articles critical of the report's trying to create a causal relationship where only a correlation exists (and that the report possibly omitted the correlation altogether). Was weather taken into consideration? Destination airport congestion? Multiple flights from the same airline going to the same destination?

Can y'all do your homework better in the future?

I certainly hope this rule is not changed. I would far prefer to have my flight canceled so that I can make some other use of my time. Sitting on a plane without access to phone, computer, let alone food, water and fresh air is time wasted, if not dangerous.

I think the Forrester Research guy has lost his way. I'm sorry, no one should sit in a plane waiting to take off for three hours. Three hours! And, the airline doesn't have to cancel the flight, just get people off the plane and back on when it is time to go. Or, put them up in the airline's fancy lounge or a hotel room, but not on the plane, for crying out loud!

I'd rather be on my own and delayed in the terminal than held prisoner with no food and water on the tarmac. I'll choose greater comfort over a couple of hours of arrival time any day.

I've been stuck on planes in the past for many hours, once longer than four hours, though none of the horror stories of flooded lavs and such.

If the three-hour rule is causing airlines to return to the gate rather than get caught out, the market will adapt. I'd rather be stuck for 17 hours at an airport than 8 hours on an airplane, thank you very much.

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